PRINT November 1992


Jack Bankowsky

Demon-possessed and spewing indecencies, Sue Williams has arrived spitting and foaming in the art-world spotlight. Indeed, Williams loads her canvases with brutish doodles and slogans until their scrubbed and smeared surfaces read like a virtual catalogue of crimes against her sex.

Dan Cameron looks in on this one-woman heart of darkness and discovers a feminism that works the very belly of the beast. Williams has perfect pitch when it comes to the dictions of abuse, of both the overt and the more insidious sort. She knows that oppression can come dressed as common sense—its impositions managed like intransigent orders, rather than the mutable codes they are—and her tactical response is no-holds-barred guerrilla. The paintings that result won’t go down any easier with antiporn feminists like Catharine MacKinnon than with Jesse Helms.

Johns Hopkins University professor Judith Butler is as restless as Williams when it comes to the policing of desire. Indeed, the obliteration of “the ethical distinctions between fantasy, representation, and action,” on which the antiporn agenda depends, strikes her as plainly reactionary. Since the publication of her most recent book, Gender Trouble, Butler has been shaking things up well outside the groves of the academy. Liz Kotz’s conversation with her is the centerpiece of this issue of Artforum, and sets the stage for Cameron’s discussion of the vociferous debates that Williams has sparked on the use of sexually explicit material and on the “negative” imaging of women within the realm of culture. It also begins a new series in the magazine: interviews with figures in the broader field of cultural studies whose work has special resonance for the discussion within our pages.

Ever since Marcel Duchamp dressed up as his feminine alter ego, Rrose Sélavy, artists of every sexual persuasion have gender-bent their way across the century, demonstrating that those persuasions are far more mutable than is conventionally acknowledged. Central to Butler’s position is her criticism of the essentializing, identity-based feminisms on which she cut her political teeth. Examining practices of parodic imitation and repetition of gender norms as attempts to “force [these conventions] to resignify,” she questions the very notion of immutable gender orientations. To accompany the interview, we have culled a selection of contemporary artworks that test these same protocols, proposing instead a range of exhilarating instabilities.

Identity bending of one sort or another runs through the issue: Jim Lewis explores Meyer Vaisman’s slapstick ethnography, discovering the antiessentialist bias in his cross-cultural bird dressing; Larry Rinder’s “Robot Redux,” a photo essay on cybernetics and robotics in contemporary art, documents a range of prosthetic mix-ups of man and machine; Thomas McEvilley views Jean-Michel Basquiat’s “primitivism” as a black artist’s take on white artists’ takes on black art; and Jean Fisher considers the Americas as the “bride” who destabilizes Eurocentric identity in this postcolonial era.

Finally, in the first installment of a new monthly column, Rhonda Lieberman, the regular Artforum contributor responsible for adding such courses as “Proust and I Love Lucy,” “Trauma and Pleasure,” and “Son of Trauma and Pleasure” to the curriculum of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, buckles under the superegoic gaze of the “Chanel big Other.” She regains her equilibrium, however, exposing Coco’s own lack before her ultimate site of “yum yum”—blue blood. With a bow to Karl Lagerfeld’s savvy in knocking off street knockoffs of his own couture and selling them back at couture prices, Lieberman defuses her own lack by elevating low-end products like dog food with mock Chanel packaging and marketing them as her own line of high-art consumables.

Jack Bankowsky